A Radical Romance: A Memoir of Love, Grief and Consolation

Alison Light

Fig Tree, £20

Review by Hugh MacDonald

IT may be pertinent to mangle Tolstoy as an introduction to this beautifully crafted, occasionally odd and highly personalised account of love and loss.

If, as the first sentences of Anna Karenina assert, that each unhappy family is unhappy in its own way, surely grief is highly personal, even if its power is universal and eternal.

Grief defies categorisation, avoids placing in any hierarchy. There are rough assumptions: losing a parent is painful but natural, losing a child is unnatural and devastating. Losing a partner is, however, subject to circumstance in its effects and aftermath. Joan Didion, of course, suffered the loss of both husband and daughter and her The Year of Magical Thinking remains a book that captures pain with a breath-taking bleakness and, paradoxically, brilliance.

Alison Light’s memoir is similarly insightful. It casts a light on the lightness of love and the profound depression of loss. It is the account of her life with and then without Raphael Samuel, teacher, writer and campaigner for the Left.

It covers the period from 1986, when she met Samuel, 20 years her senior, through her marriage a year later, up to his death within 10 years and its aftermath. Light, the author of the admirable Common People, writes with a fluency that disguises the difficulty of the subject matter.

A Radical Romance is a personal story and Light boldly refuses to evade or dissemble. This can occasionally produce interludes that some readers might find tedious or even banal. The precise state of the flooring in their home in Spitalfields falls snugly into that category for this reader.

However, the power of Light is that she can take her story and make it universal without sacrificing what made Samuel loving and loved. Sex, breakdowns, and lingering death are all noted frankly but with a precision that is the mark of the truly gifted writer.

The central power of the book thus lies in Light’s ability to take what happened to her and make it resonate and even inspire, though this is blessedly and wonderfully not a “self-help” book but one that bravely and openly offers experience without the expectation of consolation.

She knows the score. “The human bargain. Love in exchange for grief,” she writes. She knows the limitations, even the illusions, or remembrance. “A memoir is only ever a fragment of the story,” she observes.

She has, however, felt the sharp blow of seemingly overwhelming grief and survived. The most awful, patronising and cruel admonition to the grief-stricken is that they “will get over it” as if the loss of a loved one is a minor obstacle in the race of life. Rather, loss is always loss. Light learned to touch it gently like a raw wound, to lie down before it as if it were a powerful illness (and surely it is) and then allow it to become part of her but never all of her.

A widow at 41, she has since remarried but found the strength to revisit the past and be warmed by its pleasures and undiminished by its pain. Raphael Samuel is gloriously resurrected for the world but, of course, has never truly died for Light.

This is the other bargain of love. Grief persists. It is impervious to time. Its power needs the best of our resources in any attempt to placate or soothe. The more we loved, the more we suffer. This equation can be oddly comforting. There are many routes to acceptance of this inescapable reality. Reading – the digestion of another’s experience – is one of them.

Light writes: “In the earliest barren tracts of my childhood illnesses, reading in bed was not only a relief from the tedium of my own company or from physical discomfort, it was revivifying, an elixir. There was always room inside.”

There is always room to grow when one wants to shrink in the face of a pitiless dread. Light knows this. It is a wonderful act of generosity to pass it on so freely and so honestly.